"Oh, by gosh, by golly it's time for mistletoe and holly. Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents, countrysides covered in snow."
As exemplified by this holiday hit by Henry Sanicola, Frank Sinatra and Dok Stanford, holly and mistletoe are an integral part of holiday imagery and tradition. Holly is used to adorn a home in green and red finery alongside evergreen boughs and wreaths. In addition, it has become customary to hang a bouquet of mistletoe under which people are encouraged to share a holiday kiss. While these elements of celebrations are now incorporated into many of the secular and religious components of Christmas, they have very different origins.
Holly has been used since the days of the early Pagans as a decoration for midwinter festivities, when it was brought into homes to keep evil spirits away. The ancient Romans also believed that holly prickles drove away evil spirits, and it held a place of honor at December festivals dedicated to the god Saturn. To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan Saturnalia festival, early Christians would participate in the tradition of hanging evil-repelling holly on their homes to appear like the masses. Eventually as the number of Christians grew, the tradition became less of a pagan one and more associated with Christians and Christmas. Some people have inferred that holly and its prickly edges is symbolic of the crown of thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion, with the red berries representing blood.
Mistletoe was once held sacred by the Norse, Celtic Druids and North American Indians. It is actually a parasitic plant that grows on a wide range of host trees. Heavy infestation can dwarf the growth and kill these trees. In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality). The plant also was thought to be a symbol of peace, and anyone standing below it should receive tokens of affection. When enemies met beneath mistletoe, they had to lay down their weapons and observe a truce until the next day. This is how the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe likely began, and why a ball of mistletoe is now hung in homes during Christmas, a season of peace and affection.
Homeowners who hang mistletoe and holly around their homes during the holiday season should be mindful of pets and youngsters around the plants. Mistletoe and holly are considered to be moderately to severely toxic, and ingesting the leaves could be dangerous. Therefore, keep these plants away from curious hands. Mistletoe is commonly hung up high, which should make it less problematic, but holly should be hung high as well.
Now largely associated with Christmas celebrations, holly and mistletoe were once part of pagan rituals and ancient superstitions.